When my oldest son was just beginning to talk, he went through a phase of wanting to rename all of the animals in the world. He’d ask what an animal was named, think about the answer he was given and then decide to call it something else.
He would proudly announce that from that day forth, he would call that animal by a new name. I carefully explained to him that he could call the animal by any name he wanted, but the rest of the world would only recognize it by its proper name. It took him several months to accept that principle, but soon we moved on to other challenges.
Several months ago, Nate Belkin, a friend of mine, wrote a letter to the editor criticizing the National Association of Institutional Linen Management (NAILM) membership for choosing Association for Linen Management (ALM) as the association’s new name, because it included the word “linen” instead of the word “textile”.
Mr. Belkin, like my oldest son, has been trying to change the way the world refers to woven fabric. According to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia: “The term ‘linen’ refers to yarn and fabric made from flax fibers; however, today it is often used as a generic term to describe a class of woven bed, bath, table and kitchen textiles because traditionally linen was so widely used for towels, sheets, etc. ... But textiles made of cotton, hemp, and other plant fibers have also been referred to as ‘linen,’ which can make the exact referent of the term somewhat unclear.”
What we have here is the popular use of a word versus the technical use of the word. When we look at ads in the newspaper, do we see linen sales or textile sales? In department stores, do we see linen departments or textile departments? Is there a Textiles-n-Things store or a Linens-n-Things store? Do homes have textile closets or linen closets? Popular usage of a word is very difficult to change.
An even more important consideration is to consider how a word is used in the various industries you serve.
Mr. Belkin has devoted his life to working with healthcare products. He’s a knowledgeable source of information for that market. He has specifically advocated the use of the term “textile” in that market as a means to introduce the new, better-performing fabrics that are now available.
He might be surprised, however, to find out that in the hospitality market – a key growth area for the Association for Linen Management – the word “textile” is not used to refer to bed linens and towels but to draperies and fabric coverings for furniture. Using the word “textile” would be totally inappropriate in this industry.
Perhaps this is why so many members of the Textile Rental Services Association (TRSA) use the word “linen” in their company names. Potential customers see this and immediately associate certain products with the name.
I’ve never been one to participate in the practice of trying to make things sound more important than they really are. I’ve often felt like the debate over using “linen” or “textile” falls into this category. I still use a term like “garbage man” instead of “sanitary engineer.”
Like the lesson my son learned so many years ago, the issue is one of communication. What term best communicates to your target audience the message you want to convey? In the case of the Association for Linen Management, that choice was clear and easy to make.